Most northern trade dealt with the essentials of life, grain and other foodstuffs,imported to areas incapable of growing sufficent crops and to the towns and cities which had developed into manufacturing and trading bases,and relied on their ability to produce tradeable goods with which to trade for foodstuffs.
One of the most notable luxury items to come out of the north of Europe was furs,mainly from Scandinavia and Russia. The furs traded included ermine,fox,bear,beaver and of course sable. These were essential ceremonial wear, an insignia of wealth and status . In early medieval Europe they rivalled Imperial purple and were of equal standing to the later medieval Italian brocades nad Oriental silks. The trade links in Northern Europe go back into the mists of time, but by the 9th Century it was the Frisian traders who began to establish the trade routes which would be forged into strong links by later traders. The Frisian traders were active in Denmark and Sweden, especially in the trading towns of Schleswig and Birca, Birca being the main trading centre in the Baltic.
It was down to the Scandinavian traders to establish the trade routes in the North as they,unlike the Frisians controlled the trade. The impact of the Scandinavians on trade was immense, they travelled further in search of trade, going to Greenland and the Bosphorous in the east. The eastern exploration cemented the link between north western Europe and the Baltic.
The scandinavians set up a number of trading posts including Reric and Truso on the slav east coast. Having conquered the Russian tribes they opened up trade into Russia passing most of it through the trading centre of Novgorod.
By the 13thCentury it was Germany which dominated the northern trade routes through their expansion eastward , no doubt aided by the conquest of the slavonic lands by the Teutonic knights. T The push east allowed merchants to venture into Wendish territory and exploit the existing Baltic trading towns, they established trading stations all along the main routes to Smolensk and Novgorod the two main points of entry into Russia and so controlled the rich fur trade.
During the12th-13th Century one town became very important to northern trade, this was Cologne. the reason it was so important came down to geography, it sat astride the trade routes in the Rhineland and by its position was also able to control the trade from Saxony. The trade with Saxony was important because silver was mined in the Harz mountains and most circulating coin at this time was silver. Cologne also became famous for the top quality luxury metalwork it produced.
The most widely traded commodity throughout this period, was wine. The wine was grown almost everywhere in southern Europe and imported along every available route. Gascony and Guienne were producing and exporting these wines, Bruges was trading in Burgundian wine,German merchants in London were trading in wines shipped from Cologne, Mainz and Strasbourg. The sweet wines of Italy ,Greece and Crete were imported directly into northern ports.
English wool was another luxury, it was considered the best quality for weaving the fine expensive cloths produced by the Flanders towns such as Ypres and Ghent. The wool was exported by sea from the east coast of England to Flanders and northern France and their it was woven into cloth. The cloth was purchased by the merchants of Florence and Pisa and shipped by sea to these cities or by land across the Alps into northern Italy. The Flanders cloth industry was also producing linen, cotton and even some silk . The Italian cities bought the cloth processed it further by dyeing it then often traded it back into the luxury market of the north.
England also enjoyed a monopoly in the export of tin to the central European bronze-working towns which were renowned for their high quality metalwork.
The fact remains however that most luxury goods came in from either the Italian cities themselves or through them from the far-east. Venice was noted for exporting glass, the work of gold ,silver and bronze smiths in the form of jewellery, fine cloth ,illuminated manuscripts and musical instruments.
From the far-east , Persia,India,Ceylon,Java and even China came the endless list of luxury and exotic goods. The list is huge containing among other things, perfumes,musk,drugs,medicines, indigo and other dyes,ivory,all known types of precious stones and spices of all kinds from saffron to skinks! They came by land and sea, across the Caspian up the Volga and into the far north, across the Black sea through Poland or up the Danube into central Europe, but mainly they came into the Mediterranean via other routes and were traded to the merchants of Pisa ,Genoa and Venice.
The Champagne fairs were ideally situated as a trading point for these luxury goods, situated as they were in an area where the two spheres of northern and southern trade overlapped.